The year the Hong Kong flu swept across America killing scores of people and leaving others begging for death, I was working at the Macy’s department store in downtown Kansas City MO as one of their Christmas Help Squad. I’d been assigned to a department that sold home goods about which I knew nothing. If you’ve ever taken a seasonal job trying to sell products you know nothing about then you’ll understand why I spent most of my time in the stock room. I never got into trouble because it was a well known fact the no one could even find anything in the stock room.
The store was located in the old city center, not far from the abandoned stockyards and across the frozen river from Kansas City KS. It was a four story brick building with no windows on the upper floors where home goods was located. I arrived in the dark of morning and left in the dark of night, never seeing the four hours of sunlight for which a midwestern winter is so famous.
Luckily I’d made friends with another member of the Christmas Help Squad – a young African American woman who knew barely more about home goods than me, however, she did know how to navigate her way around KC’s inner city and thus made sure I got on the right bus home.
I lived with a friend whose husband made the unfortunate decision to sign up for the National Guard at the start of the Vietnam “engagement.” First, they were shipped to Missouri and then he was deployed to Japan; however by that time she’d enrolled in graduate school and couldn’t go with him, leaving her alone and friendless in a small town just south of KC. At that time I was a mess. My initial post-graduation plan: to meet the Beatles and save the world had ended with me planted face down in a Mennonite cornfield in Indiana.
Enough said on that sad chapter. My next plan was to get a job, enroll in college, and finally get my life in order. So far all was going according to plan.
I should point out that Reno Nevada is about as far from Greenwood Missouri as you can imagine. We’d left the Everything-Goes, Wild, Wild West and were now in the Have-You-Been-Saved Bible Belt. We were known in town as “dem dam hippies.” Dem dam hippies lived in three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm. It had a lean-to shed used to store the car but in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood. I slept on a cot next to the wall heater. Its fire-breathing eyes often gave me nightmares but without it I would have frozen.
Five days before Christmas I started feeling achey at work. The feeling got worse on the long bus ride to the university when I met Jo each night. The bars, barbecue joints, and old boarding houses along the route were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition, they looked as sinister as ghouls in a carnival funhouse. I remember seeing my reflection in the window on that dark, cold night. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty (or as my mother would say “death warmed over”).
I cried as I waited for Jo outside her class. All around were murals Thomas Hart Benton had painted in his lean years, done, I decided, while he himself was feverish. I had no sick time. I’d be fired. I tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was all I needed but deep down I knew I was doomed.
The next morning I was barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I managed to call Macys only to be fired but didn’t care. I was about to die so what did it matter. Some time during the next three days JoEllen stopped checking on me which meant she’d also been stricken. The phone rang and rang and rang until whoever was on the other end gave up. The day before Christmas I was finally able to stand for longer than a few minutes without feeling dizzy but as so often happens when you think the worse has come and gone – BINGO – you find out it was only a teaser for the main event.
Click here to read the conclusion The Ice Storm Cometh.